The effigy of Guy Fawkes – usually old clothes stuffed with newspaper wearing a mask - gradually became ‘poor old Guy’, and by the early 19th century was used to describe any shabbily dressed person. The word soon lost its negative connotations and by 1847 was being used as an American English alternative to ‘fellow’.
The negative elements of the festival weren't removed as quickly. Butchers in London would elect one of their own to impersonate Guy Fawkes, seat him on a cart and get a priest and executioner to accompany him on a journey through the streets, with a guard of honour formed by fellow butchers carrying marrow bones and meat cleavers, while others demanded drink money from terrified onlookers. In Oxfordshire local youths would go a-progging – i.e. stealing wood for their bonfires. As well as the usual ‘Gunpowder, Treason and Plot’ rhymes, they sang: ‘A stick and a stake/For King James’s sake!/ If you won’t give me one/I’ll take two/The better for me/And the worse for you.’
The widespread assumption is that the tradition of lighting bonfires on November 5th draws on older Pagan customs; the beginning of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native describes them as ‘lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies’. Given that the word bonfire comes from ‘bone-fire’ which relates back to the Celtic feast of Samhain (November 1st) where animal bones were thrown into the fire to scare away spirits, this seems plausible. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support it. There's no record of autumn or winter bonfires in Medieval or Tudor England - ritual fires were traditionally lit at midsummer. The lighting of November bonfires seems to have started with the Gunpowder Plot celebrations in 1605.
The earliest effigies burned on Gunpowder Treason Day (as it was generally known) tended to be of the Devil and the Pope rather than Guy Fawkes. In 1677 one particularly elaborate Pope effigy had his belly filled with live cats ‘who squalled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire’. In 1682 the London militia had to be called into break up a Pope-burning-and-firework party and in 1683 bonfires and fireworks were banned as disruptive and dangerous. More restrained celebrations were revived under William of Orange who landed in England on November 5th 1688, and over the course of the next century the day gradually became Guy Fawkes Days and the effigies burnt were of the traitor himself.
Dummies have been burned on bonfires since the 13th century, initially to repel evil spirits.
Britons used to hold bonfires in graveyards as it was thought the fire would ward-off spirits.
The word bonfire was originally 'bone-fire', i.e. a place where bones were burned.
When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.
In 1755, curators at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford threw the world's only dodo specimen onto a bonfire.
Before bonfire night make an alternative hedgehog home. Hopefully sleepy ‘hogs will choose to snooze there instead of the bonfire.